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Bellbirds call.

Video of this presentation.

Psychosocial Oncology NZ Conference  2-4/11/17


Haire Mai - welcome to Christchurch, shaken and stirred!   Drop, cover, hold if there is a shake.   I’ve actually almost done it once :-)

Each and every day in St George’s hospital I am privileged to see lives changed in the sacred places there: I see new life coming into being in the maternity suite, I see new life being given through cardiac surgery and chemo and radiotherapy, I see the blind receiving new sight through cataract surgery, the deaf being enabled to hear through cochlear ear implants, the lame being enabled to walk through hip and knee replacements; and the mute being able to speak and be heard.   These daily miracles result from the skill, dedication and persistence of a multitude of people, from cleaners and orderlies to anaesthetists and surgeons.   The only thing I as the chaplain do is to encourage people to accept what lies ahead and stand beside them on the journey.

I have titled this talk: ‘the Hospital - the place of true gathering, listening and healing’.   The promise of Jesus: ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ has traditionally been used to assert Jesus’ particular presence in worship.   But the reality is that if this was a sermon in a church, you would come - not expecting to contribute to the debate - but to listen to my pearls of wisdom - dropping indiscriminately.  Yes, I guess I do have my perceptions on truth, but so do each and every one of you, perceptions just as valid and as important as mine.   Communion and worship in the Church is essentially one-way; and parishioners, like children, are to be seen and not heard.   We used to love Cecil Frances Alexander’s hymn: ‘Christian children all must be / Mild, obedient, good as He’ and of course ‘little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’.   The problem with this is that if this continues, people remain silent children.

So I put my preaching stole aside as I try giving a talk for once - and you’ll have to forgive me if it still sounds like a sermon :-)

What a different world this might be, if the Church were to take Jesus at his word ‘where two or three are gathered', and as a faith community were gathered with people of other faiths and none, in mutually respectful dialogue!   It is the joy of coming together in a conference such as this, to leave our regular existences and go somewhere else, mix with different people, to give and get fresh ideas.   What a different world this might be if the Church did likewise rather than being so closely aligned with and indistinguishable from colonialism!   What a different world this might be if the Church listened rather than proclaimed!

A very recent technological development are the algorithms which operate on platforms like Facebook and Twitter which determine what is presented back to the user.   They reflect back what people already find interesting.   We live in digital echo-chambers - and we readily realise that this is actually unhealthy and divisive, something that cannot lead to mutual understanding and peace.

But before I can be critical of this, this is precisely what the church has done for centuries.   You and I can recall the days when marriage across denominational and faith boundaries was forbidden.   Sometimes I have thought that the whole parish structure revolves around keeping the congregation as busy as possible, lest they mix with others and get different ideas!

Neuroscientist Dr Srini Pillay in his book called ‘Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind’ makes the case for letting your mind wander to increase creativity and productivity.  (1)   When the Church’s conversation is fixated with Jesus, the Bible or tradition it stifles creativity, and therefore the divine.  

Real ‘gathering’ suggests that each of the participants has to move and I am suggesting that when the church corporate does this, it becomes a force for unity in society rather than continuing fragmentation.   The church corporate will be a force for peace and so for the health of all.

Life has a habit of disrupting any sort of self-sufficient subset of humanity - be it familial, racial, faith based or national.   Individuals fall in love with people of the wrong clan, people of other faiths and none, sometimes with a person of the same gender; sickness and infirmity come necessitating therapies beyond prayer.   If the earthquakes have taught us nothing else, they have taught us that we need each other.

A while back I heard Canadian speaker, Malcolm Gladwell say in his TED talk: ‘You’re never more alive than when things get turned upside down.’ (2)   He obviously hasn’t lived in Christchurch through the last 7 years!   Certainly alive, but also scary!

Back to the hospital.   One of the things that constantly encourages me is when I talk to patients and they say, quite frequently, how they appreciate the care of the doctors and nurses.   And I am quite sure that this is a direct function of how the doctors and nurses listen to patients and treat them as their primary focus.   The whole exercise of diagnosis is foundational to the medical profession - it is about listening.   One has only to think of the cardiac monitors and the constant taking of those vital signs: pulse, respiration, temperature and blood pressure - listening to what the body is saying - perhaps after years of neglect - ignoring the body’s cries for attention.  The supposedly mute, being enabled to speak.   But there are also the verbal questions: How are you feeling?  On a scale of one to ten what is the pain level?   What is your name and date of birth, am I dispensing this medication to the right person?   Even after discharge: We value your feedback!

I was interested to listen to the BBC radio show: ‘The Why Factor’ on ‘Why do we talk to ourselves?’ which concluded how important this is to process things in our own minds.  (3)

I have heard it said that ladies’ counsellors are their hairdressers, the ones who listen to them.   A while back we enjoyed the play ‘Steel Magnolias’ at the Court Theatre, set in a ladies hairdressing salon.  I think some men are a bit vocally reticent.

And the hospital is not static but a place in flux.  We are ever looking and listening to see if someone else is doing something more effective.   St George’s prides itself on being up with the game when it comes to advances in technology.   Old verities like aspirin and penicillin, wonderful in their own day, have long since been superseded, through necessity.   Fortunately we no longer engage in blood-letting!   The medical fraternity are always looking to the future, on how to do things better, how to achieve things previously thought impossible.   Early this year we had an e-mail from someone in the USA with 3 of the 840 MRI scans of his essentially benign meningioma.   Absolutely amazing!

In contrast, the church often only looks wistfully to the past.   The vision of the church has often been to return to the halcyon days of the 1950’s - when all questions were tailored to answers the church was ever ready to regurgitate.

Everywhere in hospitals you will find posters by the Health and Disability Commission, proclaiming three rights:
the Right to be Treated with Respect,
the Right to Freedom from Discrimination, Coercion, Harassment, and Exploitation,
and the Right to Dignity and Independence.

We need to hold to these rights dearly for these encourage us to treat each and every person as an adult deserving to be listened to, with a part to play in their own healing and in the health of society in general.  I have to be honest here - parts of the church don’t treat everyone with respect (for instance gay and lesbian persons); parts of the church discriminate (for instance between christians and non-christians) and mostly the church rewards dependence.

The primary aim of the hospital is to discharge patients - it is a sign that they are on the road to recovery.   The primary aim of churches is often to get people to come back next Sunday and each and every Sunday from then on - to keep them ill and dependent.

For me it is the hospital that treats everyone with respect, that does not discriminate and that strives to discharge people into society rather than insulate everyone from society - that is far more likely to be both doing the will of the divine, by whatever name that divine is addressed - as well as being a force for the health of society in general as well as individuals in particular - than is the church.

The church has always been an institution which has claimed, through their adherence to scripture, tradition and reason - to know and proclaim what is the will of God.   But even a cursory glance at the multiplicity of interpretations of God’s will suggests that this cannot be true.    As I have indicated there are parts of the church who are actually convinced that real christians have nothing to do with society and that the divine commands disrespect of those who do not share THE faith, promotes discrimination and rewards dependence.   I am sorry to point out this divide, but unless I do the church corporate will continue to pretend that this divide does not exist and will wonder why people have given up on her.

In recent times some of us have been astonished by the advent of alternative facts, yet the church has always been an institution which has dealt in alternative facts.   Creation rather than evolution, proclaiming a god of unconditional love by millions of followers living lives burdened by feelings of sinfulness under the threat of eternal damnation if they don’t believe in God in a particular way, and attending services claiming to be the holy communion when that service is primarily known by who can’t be included.

My hope today is not that you think how wonderful I am (or not) - only that you might be encouraged to think of what you personally believe - which may be completely tangential to mine.  

For the things that make us human rather than just sophisticated animals are:
one - that we stand on our own two feet rather than eternally cowering before the Almighty;
two - that we think and are free to choose between various courses of action rather than simply comply with commandments; and
three - that we can speak and by speaking reflect and learn as we relate to other people.

I say these things with considerable humility because it is precisely my time in the hospital setting that has brought these perceptions to me.   I say them to assure health professionals and ancillary staff that they have no need to feel intimidated by the pretensions of the church; I say them to encourage you to continue to strive for the things for which you are striving; and I say them to assure you that the trust you have in your own vocation is well-founded.

Sometimes we all think, wouldn’t it be nice to have a magic wand to fix this or that problem, to cure someone we love who is hurting.   I certainly do.  Yet of course the difficulties of this are obvious - it would render hospitals obsolete and healing available to only those few who ‘believe’ and it would render all who work in hospitals unemployed.   The hospital not only brings the miracle of new life to so many people day after day, but also provides employment, purpose and dignity to so many people.   This seems a thing which the divine, whether such a divine being actually exists or not, or by whatever name he or she may be called, would want.   It is a true kaleidoscope of care!   I was interested to hear the former Hawkes Bay District Health Board's boss Chris Clarke say words to the effect that despite his salary if he had gone on strike, no one would notice, but if the laundry and kitchen staff went on strike they would have to close the hospital!   (4)

My guess is that the way those in the medical profession worship God is by their care for the sick and suffering, not especially by attending worship which inevitably labels us as ‘Anglicans’ over others, ‘Christians’ over others, ‘people of faith’ over others.   Those in the medical profession know the advances in medicine that have come most often through others, most often through others who don’t believe like us, even through some who don’t believe at all - the ‘two or three’ gathered.

There is a continuing debate over what I - a chaplain - should be called and a better, more secular name, for a chapel might be.   I am not sure that a ‘sacred space’, a ‘prayer room’, or a ‘meditation room’ actually sounds less intimidating or prescriptive :-)   I continue to use the traditional terms because their association with church is becoming more and more tenuous and I talk about the real sacred places in the hospital being the birthing suite, the operating theatres, the chemotherapy and radiotherapy suites and the wards; rather than the chapel.   These are where new life is found.

I started with talking of the new life I see in the hospital each and every day.   Dan O’Grady .. (says) .. that our negative and critical thoughts are like velcro, they stick and hold; whereas our positive and joyful thoughts are like teflon, they slide away.   We have to deliberately choose to hold onto positive thoughts before they (the negative ones) “imprint.”   (5)   I hope that my words are like that new life, perhaps just teflon but positive and joyful rather than velcro negative and critical.   May they encourage us in the medical profession to hold on to these positive patient outcomes, and so be encouraged to continue to strive for better outcomes and to work collaboratively and to acknowledge our inter-dependence.

The fact is that the Church has claimed a monopoly on orthodoxy and spirituality, and I want to suggest that this very claim makes it fundamentally heretical and false.   The church has deluded us into thinking that spirituality is something that other ‘professional’ people practice, something to be studied and emulated.   I want to suggest that each of us has a spirituality to be recognised and nurtured, something in which to luxuriate.

A while back I was responding to an email from a friend who was lamenting the decline in church attendance, and I found myself writing: ‘I suspect that younger folk find the religion of the church doesn’t feed their souls.   I suspect that they think the church even questions if they have souls!’   Certainly the European colonisers found it convenient to question this of the indigenous peoples they dispossessed.

So may I encourage all to trust that which you find life-giving rather than accept that everything of value comes through some other authority, especially if that authority is disrespectful to others, discriminatory and rewards dependence. 

A word about mental illness.   I have marvelled how some people with none of the blessings I have experienced in life actually survive in society.   The things I learned in four years at Bloomfield Psychiatric Hospital, which I wish I had known before I started, are that few of us have no personal demons, we self-harm in subtle if not dramatic ways, we struggle with self-doubt.   None of us exorcise our demons or dismiss our delusions with any ease.   Often unhealthy religion reinforces rather than ameliorates these things, or projects on others our own inadequacies.   It is no accident that the mentally ill are often quite religious and are disconnected from society through stigma and withdrawal.   The mentally ill usually only hurt themselves and those closest to them (unless you’re an American and have an arsenal at your disposal).   The religious can condemn, alienate and marginalise millions in the name of some god or other!

So what of prayer and sacramental acts like the mass, communion, anointing for healing and similar things?   For me these are socially acceptable ways of giving someone a hug - and should be done as respectfully and sensitively as physical contact.   To pray with someone is to enter into an intimate relationship with them, where their hopes and fears may be brought out into the open.   No wonder we use ritualised words!

So we see healing in hospitals coming in gathering and listening, in openness and vulnerability, rather than in rigidity and strength.   I suggest that that other example of gathering and vulnerability with which most of us are familiar, an activity that is life giving - is physical and sexual intimacy.   Unfortunately the church has always tried to regulate this, and in doing so has been a force for continuing illness rather than health.   I reflect that the Church of course has a vested interest in people not finding health and comfort anywhere else.


(1)  http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/afternoons/audio/201846656/the-power-of-day-dreaming

(2)  Misconceptions.  http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ted/audio/201831595/misconceptions-12-february

(3)  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p053ln5f

(4)  http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player?audio_id=201844329

(5)  https://cac.org/turning-toward-the-good-2016-02-18/






Your comments are welcome at:frsparky@xtra.co.nz

Christopher Heath
Christopher Heath
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This posting of sermons on the internet began on 25/8/96.